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HOT POTATO: Lest We Remember

Wednesday, 25 April 2012  | Paul Tyson

Three years ahead of time, our Prime Minister is already making preparations to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. The ANZAC legend is of such national importance that setting aside $80 million seems entirely appropriate, or maybe even inadequate, to do it justice. In a press release on ANZAC day (2012) we are told that competitions for school children have been planned so that a select group of young Australians might have the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Turkey for this momentous occasion. But what are we remembering?

The Gallipoli landing of 1915 was a horrendous military disaster that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops in defence of the British Empire on the beaches of far off Gallipoli. Our troops went to The Great War with the intent of killing rather than dying, they were not defending Australia, and many of the Diggers who survived trench warfare on the Western front came home shell shocked and maimed and never recovered from the horrors of that time. Yet, interestingly, the modern ANZAC legend seems remarkably uninterested in these historical facts.

An estimated 200 million people died in wars in the 20th century. The horror and indiscriminate destruction of modern warfare was indelibly imprinted on the combatants and victims of modern war who knew it directly. Further, as P.W. Singer chillingly documents in Wired for War, we have seen a revolution in robotic warfare in the 21st century that that would now make a global war an even greater bloodbath than anything we saw last century. Yet the modern ANZAC legend seems quite forgetful of the barbarity, the idiocy, the wanton violence and destruction of modern war.

The ANZAC legend we now commemorate is one of the nobility of self-sacrifice in order to uphold the freedom and peace of the Australian nation. The ANZAC spirit upholds the nobility of ultimate sacrifice and the glory of having a cause to fight and die for that is bigger than one’s own personal interests. In a bizarre twist of reconstructive nationalist sentiment, we seem to have forgotten why modern war happens, what it is really like and why propagandas of military glory are so deceptive and dangerous. Perhaps, even, ANZAC day is now a state sanctioned public cult designed specifically to prevent us from remembering what war is actually all about. So as the bugle sounds, as the spirit of nationalistic martial pride swells in our breast, as legendary heroes of bravery surge forward in our imagination, we should beware lest we remember what really happens in modern war.

Lest we remember…

Since the mid-1990s the “ANZAC legend” has become increasingly identified as the crucial story defining our national identity. ANZAC day now provides us – and particularly young people – with a spiritual horizon and a religious event that gives meaning and a higher sense of purpose to our lives. I was a secondary school chaplain in the 1990s and I remember very clearly the transition which occurred from ANZAC day being a non-event in the early 90s to it being a semi-religious civic occasion which young people in particular were drawn to by the turn of the century. And let us not forget that dawn services are indeed public religious events. The manner in which the Christian religion has always played chaplain to the nation’s military establishment means that churches have largely embraced the new ANZAC mythos with relish, and largely participate in our public war liturgies without question.

The new ANZAC mythos had its birth at around the same time that the Howard government set about ‘reviving’ (creating? revising?) a defining set of specific national identity markers. Howard’s neo-conservative ‘Australian values’ sought to unify us as a nation and set us apart from other people (particularly Asians) as noble and rightly proud of our free way of life.  After 9/11, this public spirituality of ‘Australian values’ locked in on the ANZAC mythos with a passion. For now we believe that our noble and free way of life is under external threat and this threat will requires militant courage do deflect. Our young people must be nurtured in a preparedness to use and suffer violence in the defence of Australia. Interestingly, there has been no let-up in this Howard inspired youth focused militant trend after the ALP came to power, as the Gillard ANZAC centenary plans strongly attest.

Marion Maddox’s God Under Howard (2005) and Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ What’s Wrong with ANZAC? (2010) are important studies analysing how neo-conservative ‘Australian values’ and the ‘legend of ANZAC’ came into our recent collective psyche. Any serious reading in this area makes it clear that our new nationalist militarism is deeply at odds with Christ’s response to the violence of the powers of this world, and has no solid grounding in the actual events of Australian history. Further, Richard Koenigsberg’s Nations Have a Right to Kill (2009) is something anyone interested war should read carefully. Koenigsberg points out that the modern nation functions as a secular god – nations give individuals meaning which transcend their own ego and, in war, they demand ultimate loyalty – that requires periodic blood sacrifices. Koenigsberg is not, as far as I know, religious himself, but his careful analysis of how modern war propaganda works and what beliefs it is premised on should give any Christian serious cause to pause. The Christian should ask whether it is possible to be a Christian and also uphold nationalistic militantism. Most foundationally, it is the idolatry of the nation state’s claims for total loyalty, total sacrifice, that the Christian cannot accept.

So let us remember what modern war is really like. It is a Dionysian ecstasy of violence, bloodshed and destruction. It is deeply tangled in the idolatrous claims of the modern nation state to total allegiance and total sacrifice. Further, in times of religious banality the spirituality of military glory is an easy substitute for real religion to young people starved of any depth of belief and loyalty. In a time of increasing geo-political instability, the glorification of soldiers is the sure early sign of the ratchetting up of war propaganda to properly condition the next generation of sacrificial lambs who will be offered up on the alter of violence to the nation state – even our own children. Let us remember these things and give pause to reflect on them. Let us not forget what really happened at Gallipoli.


Harry Cotter
May 1, 2012, 10:49AM
Thank you for your strong counter-cultural common sense.

Here is a little something that had been fermenting in my mind since a remark by a retired army officer on Anzac Day 2009.

Born of human greed and arrogance and fear of enemies,
War feeds on selfish ambition, and the love of violence
all nurtured in a dull soup of unconquerable stupidity.
War sometimes breeds wonderful endurance and courage,
develops discipline and leadership, and builds deep friendships.
War sometimes overthrows tyrants and restores peace and justice.
But generally it favours the strong and the ruthless,
and sidelines the gentle and the peace-loving.
While fighting men lurch from long boredoms to brief terrors,
and back to uncomprehending weariness,
far away from the lines – or planes, or ships - their leaders drink power and prestige,
as the war enhances their legitimacy and satisfaction.
War is their thing. This is what they are good at.
Peace is much more complex – quite problematical, really.
And meanwhile, the spectators, anxious mothers and children
watch their food stores raided and destroyed,
their fields poisoned with mines and cluster bombs,
their markets and schools and community halls dismantled,
in exquisite and sickening demonstrations of how things
lovingly planned and crafted over sweaty months, can be shattered in a day.
War is always more urgent than dreams and plans and programmes
for health, education, culture, or music ...
It does away with the need to fight global warming
or to care about other people’s hunger,
or to protect the world and its resources.
Its whole purpose and desire is death and destruction, waste and grief.
Behind it, in losers and winners alike, it leaves a trail
of deep and painful scars, in body and mind, in memory and conscience.
Hidden deep in these are gangrenous infections of anger and nightmares,
depression and despair and suicide.
Or hatred, suspicion and longing for revenge, and yet more wars.
Or (just possibly) a loathing for war, and a passionate longing for peace.
How does God feel,
watching, watching while his precious creatures tear and murder each other,
and his beautiful creation is bombed and defoliated?

Harry Cotter, April 2012
Scott Buchanan
May 2, 2012, 11:58PM
"...it is the idolatry of the nation state’s claims for total loyalty, total sacrifice, that the Christian cannot accept."

Generally speaking, it's a valid point, Paul. But would you say this is true of a modern democratic country such as Australia, where people are free to join (or not join) the military, or to participate (or not participate) in public gatherings like Anzac Day?

Ian Hore-Lacy
May 3, 2012, 6:45AM
Some valuable food for thought and good points. But not much mention of joining the cause of good to counter evil when it has ambitious military expression. That is surely the main (only?) Christian basis for warfare. I dont accept that everybody joining up is motivated by "nationalistic martial pride".
Paul Tyson
May 3, 2012, 5:41PM
Dear Scott,
I’d say that the absence of much depth of religious horizon for most Australians means that a spiritual sentiment upholding sacrifice for the sake of the nation – something larger than the individual – does function as an object of worship, an object of final allegiance, in our times. The fact that I can choose not to participate in ANZAC day services does not mean that a general militarized sentiment of the unquestionable goodness of Australia and the glory of sacrificially serving her – to the point of killing and dying for her – is not a growing ethos in our broader culture. If cultural ethos is something that Christians should be concerned about (and I think it is) then I think the nascent cult of the nation state is indeed a real issue.
Dear Ian,
My reference to “nationalistic martial pride” is not intended as a statement about why Australian soldiers volunteered to kill and die in two world wars. Rather I am seeking to draw attention to a sentiment which is fostered in the public via the new spirituality of ANZAC day, now. So I have not tried (here) to argue that war is something that the Christian cannot enter. There may be legitimate reasons why a Christian would take up arms. Bonhoeffer is an important case in point. But then again, Christ’s response to violent evil power was not to resist it with force. Yoder in the sermon on the mount tradition of the Anabaptist martyrs makes that very important point too. Yet leaving this all to one side, what I am most concerned about in this piece is a lack of any belief commitments higher than the nation state in our not quite post-Christian broader culture, which makes the spirituality of sacrifice to the nation (and the Good of Us and the Evil of Them) one which is not relativised by loyalty to God before the nation.
June 11, 2012, 4:23PM
Hi Paul,

Thanks for your response. Yes, I agree that Christians should be concerned about the cultural ethos. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be suggesting that because culture is drawn from the collective pursuits of sinful humans - and is therefore shot through with deep moral ambiguity - Christians should then hold lightly to its claims (apologies if I am assuming too much). If this is true, and I think it is, then we can agree. I think my issue with the perspective you raise is that it's altogether impressionistic and absolutist.

In regards to impressionism, I am not sure that there is strong evidence for a widespread ethos that upholds militaristic glory. Of course, this is probably true in certain sections of society, but I think it's also true to say that in many other sections, Australian goodness and the sometimes-justified use of military force, is emphatically and vehemently denounced. I think in particular of the many tens of thousands of people who marched against the Iraq war in 2003 across the nation. Many denounced the intervention as war-mongering and Australia's apparent "goodness" was a laughable notion. I saw that first hand, being a student at one of the inner-urban universities. Of course, this perspective is similarly impressionistic, but I think it points to the fact that a vigorous conversation takes place whenever the issue of Australia and war arises.

In regards to absolutism, I think there are many reasons people choose to celebrate Anzac day and uphold Australia's martial history. It's probably the case that some have turned the nation into an idol - and, in the absence of some shared spirituality, this is probably a (poor) substitute. But I don't know that there is anything wrong with celebrating the sacrifices of people who have placed themselves in defence of the nation - if the nation is conceived, not as some idolatrous entity, but as the composition of a community of people. Justified war is the defence of people by people. That, I would argue, should be a cause for gratitude. We can argue about the ethics of particular wars. But I wonder whether it is assuming too much to suggest that those who celebrate that tradition are simply motivated - and unthinkingly so - by some kind of jingoistic, militaristic pride.

That said, I want to re-iterate my support for your contention that in the absence of some higher form of spirituality, Australia's martial history has started to function as a kind of substitute religion (in some quarters, anyway).

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